Monday, February 23, 2015

A delayed Air Asia India experience. Are they taking passengers for a ride?

Air Asia India (IATA:I5) has been operating in Indian skies from June 2014. Personally I have not been impressed by their overall strategy, plan and operations. From the selection of its hub and then moving it, to having a serious foot in mouth syndrome when it comes to declaring profitability predictions and fleet induction strategy. Nothing has gone as per what was published or planned.

I always wanted to fly the new airline, which now has a fleet of just three A320s, all with Sharklets, leased from the parent in Malaysia. The airline launched Pune operations in December 2014 with flights to Bengaluru and Jaipur. As I made my plan for Aero India 2015, I decided to return early but try out Air Asia.

Effortless booking experience on Air Asia website, which is common for the entire group and not country specific. I find the websites of SpiceJet & IndiGo clutter free as compared to the home page of Air Asia. Quick selection of seats, in which I choose the first free seating, 8F followed by meal selection – Rs. 150 for a Masala Omlette and I was done. The ticket was quickly in my mailbox.

The airline allows check-in up to 14 days in advance and I did not know this. The airline sent an email mentioning that my flight was open for check-in. Indeed very helpful.

The Fiasco!
As I booked the ticket, the flight was showing as a departure of 1530 from Bengaluru (BLR) arriving into Pune (PNQ) at 1700. Going by the past experience of air space closure at Bengaluru, I cross checked on the air space closure. The airport website had official information that airspace will be closed from 1400 – 1700 from 19th February to 22nd February which happens to be the air display time at the Aero Show.

I tweeted tagging Air Asia asking if the flight would change. Since Pune airport is closed on all Saturdays from 1100 – 1700 hours, I was sure the flight could not be advanced, it can only be delayed. Yet there has to be a confirmation. As all other airlines continued adjusting the timings, Air Asia did not !

My twitter interaction with the Air Asia team was as below,

After this I got a call from Air Asia team in Bengaluru informing me that in no case will the flight be delayed.
Snapshot of information from BIAL website

On the day of departure, I got an email saying that my revised time of departure is now 1700 hours and not 1530. This was expected because the airport operator will have given a new slot to the airline and cancelled its slot in the closure hour.

Wonder why the airline did not initiate information to passengers till the last minute.

I reached the airport early keeping in mind the traffic conditions which I experienced since morning at Bengaluru. The airport was deserted due to the closure and quickly made my way to the check in counters which had some rush.

A quick chat with the check-in agent of Air Asia about the delay and I was informed that the airline wanted to advance the flight to before the closure hour and hence the last minute delay. This reason again does not make sense considering the closure at Pune.

Fail #2

Check in was a smooth experience otherwise with boarding card handed over. I headed for security which was a very quick affair because there were no flights departing till 1700.

Airport Renovation
I have always considered BIAL as an air conditioned warehouse building until recently when they went for an expansion. The expansion has been done very well with gates on the ground floor in addition to the contact gates. The renovation is still in progress and some good food options are coming up. It was very nice to see the expansion work in progress and on track.

Soon the airport will start work on second runway and another terminal. Overall it should be good for the city and the airport.

This was utterly messed up affair. The airline said that boarding will commence at 1625 hours. The flight had a load of roughly 163 pax and all of them were at the gate by then. As people started queuing up around 1630, the lone staff informed that there will be a delay of 10 mins or so due to the runway still being closed. Now this was always known !

As the queue became longer, there were conversations between the ground staff and somebody either on the ramp or in office about revised timing for Pune departure. Whatever the passengers could hear on the walkie talkie, it created an impression that everybody was clueless on when this flight would depart.

What is surprising is that an aircraft was available in Bengaluru and the airline was not waiting for an aircraft to land before they can board this flight.

The ground staff kept on delaying boarding, even as two busses of Air India waited for the passengers to board. Finally the staff informed passengers that the runway is still closed and just when the sentence ended, JetAirways B737 took off which led to some cheers and jeers from the waiting passengers.

Slow boarding commenced and we made our way to the aircraft as more and more people came in. I was seated in seat 8F and from what I saw, the baggage loading had completely stopped for a while which led to further delay.

Eventually doors closed at 1743 hours, a good two hours 13 minutes from the scheduled time of departure and 43 minutes from the revised time.

Inflight and meal
The pilot came on PA to apologize for the delay and this was followed by a safety demo while we taxied past Kingfisher and Blue Dart aircraft and lined up on active runway 09 to take off before another Air Asia bird bank left and set course for Pune.

The aircraft was clean, the seats very comfortable as compared to the slim seats of IndiGo and the seat belts neatly arranged. Bright red color of the seat belt along with the black leather seats is a great color combination.

Inflight service started soon. With the cabin crew coming with a tray to passengers who had pre-booked their meals. This makes a huge difference. Couple of points to ponder here for the market leader IndiGo
  • Air Asia allows you to choose the exact meal and not a veg or non veg option like IndiGo 
  • This ensures that you get exactly what you have ordered unlike in IndiGo where one has to still go through the lucky draw process. Even with a pre booked meal, your choice may not be available.
  • You get served first before the on board sales commence.
  • Hot Meals! 

These four factors are huge differentiators for Air Asia India and when the expand between Metro routes, could tilt the balance in favor of them especially of the corporate passenger.

The meal was tasty, filling and cheap! This was one case where the taste and cost in air is comparable to that on ground.

The airline should do everything possible to highlight this as part of its sales strategy.

We landed smoothly on runway 28 at Pune and parked at Gate 2. The pilot came on PA informing the cruising altitude of 36000 feet and the outside temperature of -45 degree C. The airline could also announce the outside temperature at destination post landing. Just a additional brownie point.

I did not have any check in luggage but while I walked till the baggage belts, the luggage had started arriving, which is very fast and commendable.

Overall verdict
The airline will give tough fight to the competition if it gets it operations in order. While this was my first flight, I have read about the delays from a lot of friends and also some news items in the newspapers here in Pune. The delay experience was certainly something which has not been handled well.

I would give full marks to inflight – seating, comfort, service and food.

Now the last question – Will I fly again? I will, but not immediately. I will wait for the operations to stabilize and have more positive feedback on this before I book again.

Also, with the fog season behind us, the airline operations to the north should stabilize and February – May On time performance will be a good parameter to judge the airline.

Flight Summary
I5 – 1424 Bengaluru to Pune
STD: 1530, RTD: 1700; ATD: 17:55
STA: 1700, RTA: 1830, ATA: 19:05
Aircraft: VT-RED
MSN: 5824 Airbus A320 with Sharklets. Operated before as 9M- AQW

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